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Posted on Apr 14, 2011
Mr. Fish

By Mr. Fish

(Page 4)

I suddenly wondered if maybe I should have been stealing money from Barnes & Noble instead of just magazines and newspapers! After all, if physical starvation is a viable justification for stealing bread, then there must’ve been something starving in my soul that made me feel justified in stealing merchandise. Was it the fact that a huge portion of my week had to be spent engaged in an activity meaningless to me beyond the meager reward of a paycheck—not to mention that it also carried with it the torturous understanding that I was helping to perpetuate a value system that, in the simplest terms, served the upper class by guaranteeing the existence of a vast and exploited lower class? By defining myself as a person worthy of joy and requiring the sort of stark and intimate relationship with the universe that is unregulated by an abhorrent plutocracy, and as a person undeserving of the sort of humiliation that comes from the joyless exercise of having to subjugate all of my personal impulses toward self-fulfillment and self-respect in favor of helping to perpetuate a hierarchical social structure that I despise, it only makes sense that I’d want to cheat those societal filtration systems that hope to limit or qualify my intake of joy and that keep me from feeling the fullness of my existence. 

In fact, I suddenly remembered reading somewhere in college before I dropped out how slaves brought to this country often engaged in rampant theft from their slave masters. Most interesting about the theft was the fact that it wasn’t characterized by the stealing of food to prevent any physical starvation; rather, it involved the stealing of the slave master’s personal belongings, perhaps as a way of satisfying the spiritual starvation which came as a result of the slave’s displacement from not only his homeland but also all that defined his selfhood and gave him at least a debatable measure of free will. It seemed as if a self needed to act independently of another person’s expectations (whether they were tyrannical expectations, as in slavery, or merely inferred, as in all the various forms of social etiquette) to recognize its own relevance and to assert its own value and to provide the human being that it belonged to with a definitive center from which to recognize its place in the world. 

I had to ask myself: Who were these cruel and bitterly shortsighted sonsabitches who were responsible for maintaining, even nurturing, all the rules for societal conduct that made humanity’s collective concept of itself so goddamn inhumane? Noticing my surroundings and my predicament, I touched an imaginary finger to my forehead and thought, “Here’s someone who I can pin it on. …”

Just then the door opened behind me and then closed again and Heddy Markel, the great emancipator, strode past me with the manila folder that she’d earlier left with. She sat down on the corner of Alan’s desk and looked at me. I looked at her. She then reached into her folder, as before, and pulled out another cash refund receipt and held it in front of me, pointing to the customer information line. “Did you fill this out with your left hand, Mr. Booth?” she said as succinctly as if she were chiseling my last name into a headstone.

“I quit,” I said, as if her accusation had rolled over to me in the form of a soccer ball and I’d bent down and picked it up with my hands, thereby nullifying the rules of the game. There was a moment of confused silence while, rather than standing up and marching out of the room, which was typically what the words called for, I continued to sit in my chair as a way of demonstrating to Heddy Markel a relaxed confidence in my own innocence that existed so contrary to the picture that she was attempting to paint of me that it had the effect of casting her, for the first time, as the untrustworthy presence in the room. All of a sudden, with me as a non-employee, she had absolutely no jurisdiction over holding me there anymore. More precisely, with me an instant civilian, her accusations of theft had no legal recourse, particularly because in order for a civilian to be prosecuted at Barnes & Noble he needed to be caught in the act of committing the crime that he was being accused of and, of course, I was simply sitting in a chair. 

Attempting to pull me back to the script, she stood up and put the receipt back into her folder and, like a sore loser reacting to her opponent’s surprise announcement of checkmate, said, “Employee theft is grounds for immediate termination, Mr. Booth. …”

“Termination? I already quit,” I said, standing up to be taller than her. And I was. 

Attempting to continue the charade that I was outnumbered and that I should probably confess to my crime before it was too late, she said, “Does Alan have your home address, just in case the authorities need to find you?”

“Yes,” I said, humoring her while removing my name tag, knowing that the authorities that she spoke of were as much of a real threat to me as Aquaman or Wonder Woman or Jesus Christ.

“Alan will escort you from the premises,” she said, which he did, apologizing for nothing in particular the whole way out of the store. I walked back to my apartment in the cooling dusk like a liberated slave, unmoved by the fresh air filling my lungs, realizing that even behind barred windows there’s never any shortage of the stuff.

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proletariatprincess's avatar

By proletariatprincess, April 20, 2011 at 5:21 pm Link to this comment

There is a time for everything…now is the time to be angry and outraged.  If you aren’t angry, you just aren’t paying attention.
Also, there is nothing wrong with hatred either.  Hateing injustice and abuse is a commendable trait and without it, nothing improves.

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By Dar McWheeler, April 20, 2011 at 5:09 pm Link to this comment

Brilliant. Bravo.

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Anarcissie's avatar

By Anarcissie, April 20, 2011 at 10:51 am Link to this comment

Hatred has its uses.  It’ll keep you warm on a cold night.

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Mr. Fish's avatar

By Mr. Fish, April 20, 2011 at 8:41 am Link to this comment

Zeya - the depth of your disapproval is the very measure of my success.  Thanks for the note.

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By Zeya, April 19, 2011 at 7:19 pm Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

Your pompous prose makes me want to puke, Mr. Fish, so please stick to creating (sometimes) clever cartoons which are much easier to stomach. I agree with kerryrose. And I would add that your cruel nature seems to be a serious character flaw.

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By BM, April 19, 2011 at 4:58 pm Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

If you’re going to steal, think big! In New York City you can go into a high end fashion boutique and leave with a $10,000 item without much happening. NYC laws are very lenient on shop lifting so go for it. As for the story, I feel for you but wish you had been stealing from them.

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Anarcissie's avatar

By Anarcissie, April 19, 2011 at 4:20 pm Link to this comment

I’ve read other stories like Mr. Fish’s.  Heddy Markel may well have been playing a part prescribed in some rulebook for getting after employees, but it seems more likely to me that her script came from police experience.  The police can get away with certain things, like bringing a target into a closed room for accusations, threats and abuse—even physical violence—which miraculously disappear once whoever is running the show loses interest.  The target may actually have been someone else, like the manager who was forced to witness the confrontation.

Recently, as I strolled through the nearly empty offices of the sinking corporation where I have been, from time to time, employed on a contract basis, I came across a pile of books which were to be thrown out.  Among them were half a dozen on how to surveille, control, and in particular get rid of employees, especially troublesome employees.  Naturally, I snatched these up, expect some sort of devilish Machivellian plots to be described.  But they were actually rather pedestrian and pessimistic.  According to one of the books, it is always a mistake to accuse an employee of something for which the accuser does not have solid, irrefutable proof, because when proof is lacking the employee can sue.  Many examples of the misstep and its consequences were given.  Had Mr. Fish recorded the interview (and fully concealable voice recording devices that will run for several hours are now available for less than $100) he might have had quite a case.  This is something to keep in mind if you find yourself low on the employment food chain, and many of you probably will.

Often, the big corps get rid of people they don’t want around any more in more anonymous and inscrutable ways.  One is transferred to a department or subsidiary which is then dissolved.  Or one is just laid off for obscure business reasons.  Or one is transferred to an out-of-reach branch office.  This is why I think the scene might have been set up to threaten or implicate Mr. Fish’s manager, rather than to get Mr. Fish himself.

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By kerryrose, April 19, 2011 at 4:07 pm Link to this comment

Mr Fish

You speak the language of cruelty, and I don’t find that amusing or brilliant or clever.  There is an ugliness and hatred in you that I detect.

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By Mr. Fish, April 19, 2011 at 2:46 pm Link to this comment

With all due respect, kerryrose, it is your responsibility to draw a larger connection about peons and petty power in the American workplace from the commentary you read, not mine.  My only responsibility is to be as disturbing and as adventurous and as penetrating as my energy and courage make possible.  If you’re offended by my personal outrage over the propagation of bullshit and require dissent to be well-mannered and academic and scentless (not a dig on my friend Chris, by the way, whose work is brilliant and, while aesthetically different from my own, no less outraged), you are precisely what I find abhorrent about the self-proclaimed progressives that dull real dissent in this country by abstracting the struggle.  Just as Lenny Bruce said: Take away the right to say ‘fuck’ and you take away the right to say ‘fuck the government.’  Or ‘fuck Barnes & Noble.’  Or ‘fuck Heddy Markel.’  Believe me, it takes more moxie and a stronger moral constitution to criticize an individual than an amorphous corporate entity.

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By Voluptas, April 19, 2011 at 1:53 pm Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

Simply genius.

I’ve been looking for a new religion and, since I’ve now found the God to go with it, I’ll get my church started. Unfortunately, the fish icon is taken ... perhaps a sardine on a cross. We’ll call ourselves “sardonists.”

“If you have Mr. Fish inside your heart, you will be saved.”

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By kerryrose, April 19, 2011 at 9:22 am Link to this comment

Mr Fish’s cruelty is stunning in this blog.  His comments are vicious. 

Compared to Hedges’ social, ethical, and moral viewpoints about social problems, Mr Fish’s blog screams personal vendetta against particular people.

Sorry, can’t celebrate personal cruelty.  Draw a larger connection about peons and petty power in the American workplace please.

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By proletariatprincess, April 18, 2011 at 11:09 pm Link to this comment

I think I am in love with you, Mr. Fish. 
I have admired your art for a long time now but only recently have I come to read your prose on Truthdig. Now I see why you are called the resident genius.
But putting all that sloppy admiration aside, this particular essay had special meaning to me as a retired union rep. 
I have been in that room many times.  I know those charactors.  I know that hard assed woman from “security” who lives to belittle workers.  I know the woosey supervisor who is just so so sorry, but never speaks up for what is right and fair.
But how different that situation becomes when it is a union workplace and the worker has the right to a union steward at such a time.  Having someone there who is on your side makes a world of difference.
A contractural greivance proceedure disciplines management to treat workers with more respect and dignity.
But it goes without saying that a Union job is a better job than working at non union Barnes and Noble and that losing a good union job is a very serious matter.  Quiting out of principle is usually not something a union represented worker would consider.  Fighting back would be a more likely action.  And, sometimes, fighting back has unintended benefits…like better management and better working conditions.
Thanks for this article, Mr. Fish.  I enjoyed reading every line and look forward to your next contribution.

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By Wayne, April 18, 2011 at 8:52 pm Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

I enjoyed the read, but kept having flashbacks to a scene in a movie I recently watched on DVD. Can’t remember the name of the movie.

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By Adam Laceky, April 17, 2011 at 9:27 pm Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

It always surprises me, the comments that make the cut and those that don’t. I posted a sympathetic reply, and it didn’t make it through the filter. Maybe it was the part where I offered what I thought was constructive criticism of Mr. Fish’s writing style. So, since that didn’t work, I’ll try this:


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johnnyfarout's avatar

By johnnyfarout, April 17, 2011 at 8:54 pm Link to this comment

something weird going on here.

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By johnnyfarout, April 17, 2011 at 8:53 pm Link to this comment

“speck” all night long if my partner was gear fab.

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By johnnyfarout, April 17, 2011 at 8:52 pm Link to this comment

I used to “speck” all night long if my partner was gear fab.

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By Anarcissie, April 17, 2011 at 7:03 pm Link to this comment

I like ‘to speck’.

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By Adam Laceky, April 17, 2011 at 4:22 pm Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

Nice story, and one I can relate to. I quit a job at a top-40 record (yes, record) store because I was accused of letting someone steal a VHS (yes, VHS) of “Gone With the Wind.” I could go on, but what’s the point?

However, it would be nice if Mr. Fish would use shorter sentences. Not because I can’t parse run-on sentences with multiple clauses. Because I like Mr. Fish, and I hope to enjoy his columns even more. I’m just sharing some wisdom I’ve acquired while watching my hair turn gray.

OK, start the flame war. Another thing I’ve learned is that no criticism, however constructive, goes unpunished on the InterTubes.

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By culheath, April 17, 2011 at 10:24 am Link to this comment

“...she performed to speck…”

“...why the need to so thoroughly Lampoon the authoress of his

I believe it’s the premise of the “spec” and the resulting situation that’s actually being lampooned.

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By SoTexGuy, April 17, 2011 at 8:51 am Link to this comment

Fabulous read..

Yet there’s another take on the events so colorfully described by the excellent Mr. Fish.

The corporate hit-mam was there with the specific purpose of facilitating the exit of the young Fish. She did so with ease. Employing the simplest, hackneyed play list of questions and dramatic props.. the waving of file folders, ominous exits and re-entries.. Fish did all the work.. and his employers were left entirely without liability.

Whatever the real deficits of that woman’s appearance or personality she performed to speck and likely felt rewarded in her position both personally and financially. While the young Fish was on the street.

Certainly there’s no hint of lasting damage to the author from that experience.. and if it contributed to his talent and current career we are all beneficiaries.. But I suspect some understanding by the author of the events as I suggest they transpired.. else why the need to so thoroughly Lampoon the authoress of his


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By sarum, April 17, 2011 at 4:01 am Link to this comment

I am in love with everyone here.  Thank you thank you.

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johnnyfarout's avatar

By johnnyfarout, April 16, 2011 at 3:31 pm Link to this comment

I enjoyed reading through this confrontation and all the existential twists with this corporatist and her rather reflective prospective victim. A melancholy yet dark humor is all through the telling; appealing to us old 60’s radicals. I’m left with the impression that no monies had been stolen, just a few magazines and such that are worthless anyway. Barnes & Noble is in bankruptcy now. I’m sure many thousands are to blame, all outside of the corporate offices where the executives toiled tirelessly and passionately for penultimate and transcendent fiscal accumulation. One eye on the books, the other always on the drag-ass employees; those sad nerdy ne’er-do-wells who somehow got past the HR illiterates and were now keeping all the MBA eagles from soaring up out of their nests, which are once again cluttered with olde return receipts seemingly forever at the root of bookstore failings. Security cameras and Point of Sale investigations, ending with night sticks and flashing lights are the fantasies of capitalist enterprise collapse. Someday while she’s driving under an overpass, on her way to yet another managers desk and another warm cup of flavored coffee, a worn and thumb eared copy of Albert Camus’ The Stranger, just might bounce off her car’s windshield and there’ll be some ragged ex-employee of Barnes & Noble scurrying up the rocky scree to hide twitching in the paper littered shadows…

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By William, April 16, 2011 at 10:32 am Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

You are such an excellent writer….
William Brooks

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By Mr. Fish, April 16, 2011 at 9:47 am Link to this comment

Thanks, culheath, I appreciate it, truly.  And if you, or any of my other riffraffy fans, want an advance copy of my new book, Go Fish - How to Win Contempt and Influence People (, I’ll be in the Akashic Books booth at the LA Time Festival of Books signing books, kissing babies and being totally awesome.  Dig it.

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By culheath, April 16, 2011 at 6:27 am Link to this comment

Do thieves have a saint?

Jean Genet comes to mind, but he exited in ‘86, so the seat you could justifiably fill is open.

I never thought it likely that the clarity and depth of your writing would tickle me more than the liberating chuckles I got from your political cartooning. Major kudos.

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culheath's avatar

By culheath, April 16, 2011 at 6:22 am Link to this comment

Do thieves have a saint? Jean Genet comes to mind, but he exited in ‘86, so the seat you could easily fill is open.

I didn’t think it was likely, but I enjoy the clarity and depth of your writing even more than the deadly chuckles I get from your cartoons. Major kudos.

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By thethirdman, April 15, 2011 at 9:30 pm Link to this comment

I finished the last line, and immediately thought, “love it.”  Keepyourheaddown,
you beat me to the punch.

Mr. Fish (because I know for a fact that you read these), I just finished my oral
exams today, and you sir, nailed the master-slave dialectic in a way that is
relevant and welcome in this day and age.  You follow it the greatest tradition of
art: Make it new.  Thanks for making my day.

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By doublestandards/glasshouses, April 15, 2011 at 8:55 pm Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

Heddy didn’t stay with Barnes & Noble either.  Later on she became famous in the movies:

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By keepyourheaddown, April 15, 2011 at 7:28 pm Link to this comment

love it…

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